I was six when my mom remarried. She has since divorced again, which I always feel obligated to point out when I mention her second marriage. It seems an important clarification. I used to be Katie Sue Kent, and when my mom sat me down to tell me that her second husband would be legally adopting me, my first test was to see if I could spell what would become my new last name. I was the kind of kid that always begged my mom to ask me trivia questions about outer space when we were on car trips, so I was elated to be offered an opportunity to show off my bomb ass brain power. I took a quick deep breath and spewed out “S-I-S-N-E-R-O-S” as quickly as possible, and flashed a big toothy smile. I was so right, and have since spelled my last name wrong on exactly zero occasions.
I was in the wedding, and wore a white dress with a green bow around my waist. I remember being really super pissed I didn’t get any presents. We moved into a small house about forty yards from a set of train tracks in Gothenburg, Nebraska, over which ran a two-lane overpass. It was the kind of overpass that had steep grassy sides, and a big slab of cement just beneath it that sloped at a 45 degree angle, meeting a small gravel road at the bottom. Both slopes – the side and beneath – offered me what every seven year old kid always seems to find: an opportunity to dramatically nearly kill myself.
Winter. It snowed a bunch. Well, it snowed a Nebraska bunch, which if I remember my conversions right is equivalent to approximately four Minnesota what-the-fuck-this-isn’t-even-snows, eight of which make up a Nebraska HOLY-FUCKING-SHITBALLS-IT’S-THE-NINTH-CIRCLE-OF-HELL, seventeen of which equals one Minnesota “Meh.” So, not a ton of snow. But the overpass’s side was steep, and I had a cheap plastic sled, hot pink snow pants, purple snow boots that I once put on the wrong feet to sprint to my neighbor’s house when my parents were fighting loudly, and a stylish poof ball stocking cap. I was all the hell over that shit. Dad dragged me across the road in the sled, and sent me trotting up the steep incline.
I’m afraid of lots of things. I’m probably afraid of most things, if someone sat down and made a list of all the things that there are or have been. Remember: dinosaurs would be on that list. And there were a lot of them. I have always been acutely aware of my own mortality, and even more acutely attuned to ways I can avoid it. Even as an invincible child, I knew standing atop that hill, cars zooming by just behind my head and a mountain of snow in front of me that just as well have been 1.5 lightyears long, that there was a distinct possibility the events that were going to immediately transpire could kill me. I mean, I’d really have to fuck up to die sledding down that hill, but it wasn’t impossible. I ran through all the potential scenarios in my head. I could hit a bump halfway down, which would propel me forward on the sled, and my left leg could become entangled beneath it and rip off gruesomely at my hip, a stream of bright red blood following me down the hill. I could start sledding at the exact moment that an erratic driver propelled himself off the road, through the fence and off the overpass, careening over the railing directly onto my unsuspecting little head. Except I was suspecting. I was seriously suspecting.
I decided to suck it up and try to win a battle I’ve been fighting my entire life: once and for all do something about my absurd fear of risk. I mean Jesus, I could spell my new last name for Chrissake, and that had like eight letters in it. I plopped gracelessly down, and scooted off. “WHEEEEEEEEEEE!” I surely would have yelled if I hadn’t been terrified for the duration of the trip (approximately 5.5 seconds). At the bottom of the hill the nose of the sled hit a small snow bank and sent me head first into it. For a full ten seconds I stared wide eyed into the middle of a stark white snow bank, assuming with all the certainty in the world that I had most definitely just died and I was zooming through purgatory on my way to heaven (I had yet to find my atheism). Dad pulled me out, I shook off, and did it again with a teensy bit more confidence this time.
Summer. The underside of the overpass is a smooth cement slope made up of about six huge squares. I always imagined a monster finger manifesting itself out of a cloud and boop, pushing one of the six squares, which would then light up like in “Billy Jean” only bigger. One day, in what was far and away the most reckless thing I’ve ever consciously decided to do, I committed myself to riding my bike down the bottom of the overpass. I had overestimated the danger of sledding down the side. Clearly, sledding was peanuts. Even now, however, I see the stupidity in this plan. The slope is short and steep and ends in a gravel road. I had no helmet, and had to back pedal to brake. Dumb, right? Here was my thought process, with cursing added for effect:
Okay, I’m going to fucking do this. Shit, this is really high up. No, fuck it. I’m doing it. And I’m going to go to school tomorrow and tell all those motherbitches that I rode my bike down the fucking overpass, and they’ll be all like daaaaaaaaaamn, Katie! You so badass! And I’ll be like you’re fucking right I am, now give me your chocolate milk or I’ll kick you in the back of the knees. I need this. I really fucking need this. I gotta show everybody at school that I’m not the skittery, awkward, clumsy nerd-o-tron they all think I am. I kind of hope I wipe out and scrape up my knees so I’ve got tangible proof this happened. Maybe mom will film it. No, I’m not telling her about this. Please for the love of everything that is good in the world, don’t cry.
Jesus, don’t cry. I tucked my skinny ass on that Schwinn banana seat, gangly white jelly-shoed feet perched on the pedals, and kicked off. “WHEEEEEEEE!” I surely would have yelled if my breath hadn’t caught in my throat as a sudden and terrifying realization hit me: you’ve been writing [name of crush redacted] in your notebook at school, and when you die and they clean out your desk everybody is going to find it and laugh at your dead self. I probably only got about halfway through that thought before my bike skidded to a halt in the gravel and flipped me over the handlebars. I landed on my knees. I looked down. I looked up. I looked behind me at my bike, lying on the ground. No tears. I’m not crying. That hurt like a fucking motherfucker, but I’m not crying.
“I’M NOT CRYING!” I screamed as I sprinted toward the house, and quickly doubled back to retrieve my bike. Of all the sincere accomplishments I’ve been lucky enough to experience in my twenty-four years, Schwinning it down Ultra Mega Über-Rampzilla of Death and Gore and Headless Bunnies sticks out as the one I was at that immediate moment most proud of. When I think of what in my life now could possibly make me so simultaneously terrified and full of desire and proud, it would probably be asking a cute guy out on a date and not getting rejected. Which is waaaaaay less awesome than biking or sledding down a precipitous hill. I think that means I was a much braver person when I was seven.